By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
You could almost call it an underground economy, with workers moving in and out and leaving no records or secret records and some playing so close to their chest that nobody can estimate the value of what they do.
This is a big part of the world of the civilian contractor at Fort Hood, the nation's largest military installation. A couple of years ago, local officials snapped to the fact that although many contractors are highly visible socially and economically, the whole world of contracting is an incredibly complex web of business dealings. Its value might add greatly to revenue figures that could attract civilian business and industry and qualify the area for more serious public-works attention by the state.
After the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce Defense Contractors Council was formed a couple of years ago, council vice chairman Billy Stephenson of Serco Inc., backed by chairman Ron Munden of Camber Corp., took a preliminary look and concluded the total economic impact of the contractors is probably more than $1 billion. They set out to track down all the nooks and crannies of the work. They thought the job would be tedious and lengthy but possible, because they were former military officers and business professionals with a lot of inside knowledge, but they ran into obstacles.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, former III Corps commanding officer, couldn't offer all the help needed. Calls to the Pentagon produced a lot of head-scratching. Even attempts to watch everything that went on at the fort were only partly successful because of areas blocked by security.
"We have several problems," Stephenson said. "We can find the people whose contracts are signed at Fort Hood easily through its contract command, but there are a lot whose contracts were signed in Washington or at other forts at some level who have to do some work here. They get on and off the fort with personal or vehicle identification and stay in temporary quarters all the time they're spending money in town. But they have nothing to do with associations in town because they see themselves as visitors, just here to do a job and leave.
"Then some we can find don't want to disclose the value of their contracts because their competitors might see the figures and know how to outbid them on future contracts.
"Also, anyone you find might have two or three subcontractors who might outsource work themselves. A big project might have 20 or 30 subcontractors."
He said he tried dividing the fort up on a grid and getting 20 Central Texas College students to cover the sectors on foot, asking people who they were working for, but there were so many areas where entry was denied that the project couldn't get very far.
"We found that the more questions we had, the more came up that we couldn't answer," he said.
So now everybody's looking for new ideas, and the best source of information so far is the membership of the Defense Contractors Council itself, which has 178 members. Most of those are contractors, but several dozen are business and professional people who support their work or are deeply involved in the contracting process. Members of the council, highly successful since its beginning stages as a vehicle to advance common interests, are supposed to report the contractors and subcontractors they run across so that Stephenson or others can approach them about supplying information.
GKCC president John Crutchfield said, "The state comptroller determined the economic impact of Fort Hood on the state to be $6.1 billion in 2004, but to the extent you can't inventory business activity, you'll always underestimate impact. Because of this, we come up short time and again. Because of the contractors council, we have a greater estimate of contractor activity than we've ever had, but we still probably only have a third of it." He estimated that less than half of civilian contract work at the fort is initiated there.
Heart of Texas Defense Alliance executive director Bill Parry pointed out other complexities. "Some people have multiple contracts," he said, "and in some cases, a contractor will partner with a disadvantaged or minority-owned business, known as an 8A business, because those firms are supposed to get a certain percentage of contracts, so you'll have an 8A contract with a bigger firm behind it, and it's not obvious just by looking at the contract. These are things other contractors may not know.
"We tried talking to Washington, but there's no one location where we can find everything out. We won't know until we can find out all possible contracting mechanisms."
Crutchfield said, "We're all constantly trying to think of who we know who's not on the list. And there are a lot of eligible members of the contractors who haven't heard of it," he said.
"And we have to find ways to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing information that will be useful.
"The reality is that we may never be able to list them all, but we can get to the point where we know percentages. We get smarter about it every time we try something."
Crutchfield pointed out previously that Killeen started attracting more attention from out-of-town and out-of-state businesses seeking to expand when it reached 100,000 population. Bigger revenue figures would have the same effect,
"A more accurate estimate would cause the state to invest more in the area with roads and all other kinds of services," he said, "but unless we get it on paper, it will make no difference. We need it to show legislators and chief executive officers."
One tactic in bringing contractors out of the shadows might be to convince the ones who can to concentrate more activity here. One company that did that recently is Engineering Solutions and Products, Inc., a field support and training firm based in New Jersey that established a training center and warehouse here in 2006 after three years of growing operations at Fort Hood. The company joined the GKCC, and local director Michael Womer publicly thanked about 25 Central Texas companies and organizations for helping with the establishment.
ESP's work is highly technical, and personnel based here travel around the world. But contractors include everything from gate security, which draws $11.5 million annually, to groundskeepers.
And the contractors council now provides a vehicle for leadership roles for companies planted here. Munden, a retired Army colonel, had never been stationed at Fort Hood, but Camber Corp. sent him here to establish a branch that operates worldwide.
"The contractors who become active in the community tend to thrive more than those who don't," Stephenson said. "The contractors council is all about things that will provide jobs. Right now we have lots of soldiers coming back disabled. We have vehicles that can survive the explosion of improvised explosive devices that still cause concussions in the soldiers in them. Many, many contractors hire as many veterans as they can because they understand the Army, and sometimes disabled veterans form a high percentage of their personnel.
"We hope to provide more and more opportunities."
Contact Don Bolding at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7557